Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 8, 2014
Kristin Phillips-Court The Perfect Genre: Drama and Painting in Renaissance Italy Burlington: Ashgate, 2011. 286 pp.; 10 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9781409406839)

The concept of interdisciplinarity seems increasingly unavoidable in modern academia—but then, who would want to avoid it? As the relevance of the humanities is more and more frequently questioned, and cash-strapped universities are creatively reorganizing liberal arts departments in ways that might indeed encourage a widespread unification of intellectually contiguous disciplines such as art history, literature, and history, one has everything to gain in joining forces with colleagues across the disciplines. Art historians (especially in the field of Renaissance art) have of course been engaged for more than a century with interdisciplinary inquiry involving an integration of sources, contexts, and methodologies developed in historical, literary, religious, and philosophical scholarship, as well as in social science disciplines such as anthropology and psychology. But for decades now, our colleagues in history and comparative literature have likewise been engaged with the evidential “use” and/or interpretation of images, moving us still closer to an ultimate erasure of disciplinary boundaries. To read their analyses of works of art is sometimes like discovering a parallel universe where people are thinking about the same things we are thinking about, only slightly differently.

Kristin Phillips-Court’s The Perfect Genre: Drama and Painting in Renaissance Italy constructs a new bridge between the disciplines. A scholar of Italian language and literature, Phillips-Court addresses a series of early modern Italian cultural contexts familiar to art historians, examining questions that might just as well have been examined by them—and using analytical tools they might just as well have used. The difference at first seems little more than a matter of logical sequence and of emphasis, since her interpretative arguments typically begin with the analysis of literary texts—specimens of Renaissance dialogic drama—but then develop these readings to build contexts for parallel analyses of contemporary pictorial images. However, while art-historical interpretations usually assume that the text somehow precedes the image, Phillips-Court investigates how pictorial developments may in fact have staked out new possibilities of poetical and psychological experience only later realized on the Renaissance stage. Proposing to reduce this comparison of drama against painting to a set of mimetic, aesthetic, noetic, epistemological, political/ideological, and ethical common denominators, her study reveals a strong kinship with the most advanced iconographic and reception studies in early modern art history, yet confronts a set of important questions that art history has not systematically addressed. No previous art-historical or interdisciplinary study compares with Phillips-Court’s contribution either in terms of its unique scope of topics or critical sophistication.

We art historians might have imagined that Phillips-Court’s literary expertise would furnish new evidence for the visual aspects of drama we have long suspected of shaping the portrayal of similar narratives in painting and sculpture, but she explicitly disavows any interest in stagecraft—lighting, costume, the deus ex machina, etc.—preferring to stake her comparisons on the question of how the dramatic and pictorial inventions under discussion framed what were then new relationships with the audience or beholder. Throughout, she makes extensive use not only of literary theories of reception, but also of art-historical classics by Ernst Gombrich, John White, John Shearman, Robert Williams, and Thomas Frangenberg, among others, similarly dealing with the aesthetic and epistemological conditions of beholding. Because the works of art are not primary objects but rather diacritical instruments of her interpretative method, Phillips-Court does not actually operate the machinery of art-historical analysis, but tends to rely, sometimes perhaps too respectfully, upon “established” art-historical authorities. Phillips-Court’s own arguments are presented as basically intuitive and inductive; with their sometimes excessive use of literary-critical jargon and an insistently non-linear manner of thinking, they can seem disorderly. But the reader’s effort is rewarded with her profound critical insights. Her assertions and conclusions are far too numerous to describe here in full, but her basic modes of inquiry are as follows.

In some instances Phillips-Court seeks to connect new developments in dramatic dialogue and the conceptual space of the Renaissance theatrical stage to the development of perspectival pictorial space and the new possibilities of figural interaction within it—further entailing the construction of previously unforeseen relationships between beholder and image—and thus to a new humanistic epistemology of the subject. This interpretative mode is elaborated in her first chapter, which begins with an analysis of Feo Belcari’s dialogic drama on the theme of the Annunciation, the Rappresentazione quando la Nostra Donna Vergine Maria fu Annunziata dall’Angelo Gabriello (1469), and then proceeds to consider its relationship to several pictorial works including Annunciations by Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli, dating to the 1440s. Phillips-Court’s fifth chapter deals with a different sort of perspectival subjectivity in Giordano Bruno’s drama Candelaio (1582). In Bruno’s play the painter-philosopher of Gioan Bernardo possesses a privileged understanding of three plotlines involving false appearances—the amorous masks of the mad homosexual-candleman-turned-failed-Petrarchan-heterosexual lover, Bonifacio, the pretentious pedant, Manfurio, and the alchemist, Bartolomeo—and this understanding becomes an analog for pictorial perspective itself, that is, a unique angle of perception from which the distortions of madness and illusion can be rationalized. Phillips-Court’s further conclusion that Bruno’s notion of subjective truth could be related to the mimetic formulations of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is informed by Roberto Luciani’s and Nuccio Ordine’s realization that Caravaggio’s patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, and the painter himself, must have had firsthand knowledge of Bruno’s metaphysical thought (Roberto Luciani, “Tenebre e fuoco: Caravaggio e Giordano Bruno,” in Caravaggio e Giordano Bruno fra nuova arte e nuova scienza, Rome: F.lli Palombi, 1994, 18; and Nuccio Ordine, “Ancora su Caravaggio e Bruno. Le relazioni di Gian Vincenzo Pinelli con Della Rovere, Paolo Gualdo e i fratelli Del Monte,” in Angelo Romano and Paolo Procaccioli, eds., Studi sul Rinascimento italiano. In memoria di Giovanni Aquilecchia, Rome: Vecchiarelli, 2005, 315–24).

Phillips-Court’s second chapter proceeds from an aesthetic/discursive analysis of Giangiorgio Trissino’s drama Sofonisba (1514–15). Here, she establishes the dramatist’s participation in the short-lived but rich cultural context of the Rucellai gardens—a reference point for such figures as Niccolò Machiavelli and Luigi Alamanni—thus finding common ground with recent historical scholarship that recognizes a moment of post-Ficinian political realism and literary secularism, and creating a basis for comparisons with roughly contemporary works of art. The story of Sophonisba’s suicide following the death of her husband Syphax at the hands of Masinissa brims with moral-exemplary and affective potentialities. Phillips-Court argues that Trissino’s portrayal of “Sofonisba’s aporetic oscillation between pathetic resignation and heroic resolve” (65) finds a pictorial analog in Giovan Francesco Caroto’s contemporaneous portrayal of Sofonisba Drinking the Poison (after 1515) (83ff). Here, she makes excellent use of Mary Rogers’s important work on Trissino, Firenzuola, and the sixteenth-century portraiture of women to leverage a comparison with certain quasi-Petrarchan ambiguities/antitheses of Caroto’s figure, including a peculiar simultaneity of femininity and masculinity, while further observing that “Caroto’s treatment of his subject encapsulates Sofonisba’s double formation in the play—her double drive to narrate the scene and to inhabit the scene” (85; Mary Rogers, “The Decorum of Women’s Beauty: Trissino, Firenzuola, Luigini and the Representation of Women in Sixteenth-Century Painting,” Renaissance Studies 2, no. 1 [March 1988]: 47–88). The argument becomes far more tantalizing when Phillips-Court (86ff) brilliantly suggests that this seamless combination of dialectically opposed sentimental-affective forms both in Trissino’s tragedy and in parallel pictorial works might reflect the diplomatic rhetoric characteristic of this period’s fraught political landscape.

Chapter 3 examines Annibale Caro’s Comedia degli straccioni (1543), discovering in this mid-cinquecento drama a rather less iconically/symbolically focused, and still more aesthetically vibrant, experience that aims simultaneously toward qualities of complexity and restriction. The origins of the Comedia itself and of the aesthetic paradox it embodies are traced to the patronage and politics of Pope Paul III, who commissioned the drama on the eve of the Council of Trent, in the spring of 1543. Indeed, the city of Rome, recovering from the devastation of the Sack and energized by the pope’s potentially contradictory ambitions of quasi-imperial power and spiritual leadership, inevitably became the site of political and social ironies that Phillips-Court finds reflected in every aspect of Caro’s drama. The play features three intricately interwoven plot lines. These converge upon the story of two brothers who, having brought a lawsuit for the recovery of some jewels, are finally aided by the papal lawyer, Rossello. This same attorney, again figuring the possibility of a morally just and fully legal resolution, comes to the aid of the hapless but beautiful and virtuous Giulietta/Agatina, whose love for Tindaro and subsequent Roman vicissitudes constitute the main narrative line of the play. It is a little disappointing that all of this ultimately leads Phillips-Court to what may seem a familiarly Shearmanesque conclusion—namely that the prime aesthetic link between Caro’s drama and the pictorial inventions of contemporaries including Michelangelo (The Last Judgment, 1536–45) and Perino del Vaga (the Sala Paolina frescoes at Castel Sant’Angelo, 1545–48) lies in their common manneristic “complexity.”

Phillips-Court’s fourth chapter begins with a consideration of Tasso’s pastoral drama Aminta (1573), framing a subsequent analysis of the new pastoral thematics of early cinquecento Venetian painting. Following André Chastel’s intuition that Tasso must in fact have known and assimilated the presumed pastoral poetics of Giorgione’s works, Phillips-Court perceives the contradictory aims of edification and erotic sensuality in Tasso’s drama as of a piece with the similar hybrid that some scholars have perceived not only in Giorgione, but also in Titian and Dosso (André Chastel, “Gli artisti del Tasso," in Andrea Buzzoni, ed., Torquato Tasso tra letteratura, musica, teatro e arti figurative, Bologna: Nuova Alfa Editoriale, 1985, 197). The arguments are again compelling and bring a new level of literary-critical sophistication to old art-historical questions. There is a fine study in comparative iconography in her analysis of the attributes and character of Tasso’s lovely Silvia, whose conflicting threads of virginal purity and subtle hints of sensuous abandon open the door to an insightful confrontation with Titian’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene (1530–35).

Addressed to an interdisciplinary audience, The Perfect Genre deserves close attention from historians of Italian Renaissance art. There is much here to stimulate further research. The volume is handsomely produced and features mostly excellent black-and-white illustrations (in my copy, figs. 1.7 and 1.8 are flawed, lacking their complete value range) in addition to ten color plates with better than average color accuracy.

Anthony Colantuono
Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland, College Park

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